An election in Hungary sounds a death knell for the free press

Nearly two weeks ago, Hungary’s far-right governing party, Fidesz, won a crushing victory in national elections, further strengthening Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s tight grip on power. Orbán has gradually eroded Hungary’s independent press since he took office in 2010. His latest win is all but a death knell.

Orbán accelerated a longstanding anti-media campaign a few years back, going on TV to encourage key allies to buy or begin news outlets. In late 2016, then Austrian-owned company Mediaworks shuttered the country’s largest opposition daily, then sold its remaining properties to government-friendly owners. Since this month’s election, other critical voices have fallen silent. When the English-language Budapest Beacon closed last week, its managing editor lamented that pro-Orbán consolidation has made it impossible to source reliable information in Hungary. The country’s last remaining opposition daily, Magyar Nemzet, and Lanchid radio station also both shut down after their owner Lajos Simicska—a tycoon who fell out with Orbán in 2015—decided he would no longer finance them.

ICYMI: Dead stories and the small fees for killing them

Speaking with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, former Magyar Nemzet reporter Flora Garamvolgyi blamed the government’s monopoly on advertising for squeezing them out. “What happened is obviously a personal tragedy because I lost my job,” she added. “But people have been made to consume racist, xenophobic, anti-immigration propaganda all over the news, like, daily. So it’s a much bigger issue than just a newspaper shutting down.”

Orbán’s recent election campaign was predicated on extreme rhetoric on immigration, intertwined with relentless attacks on Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros. Soros is a worldwide lightning rod for fringe anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing, but in Hungary, attacking him has a more mainstream resonance. Escalating a familiar smear campaign, pro-Orbán paper Figyelo last week published a list of more than 200 pro-Soros “speculators,” including staffers with Amnesty International and other NGOs, and investigative journalists like Andras Petho.

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Orbán has launched a full-court press against his country’s media, chipping away at independent ownership, publicly attacking critical journalists, and channeling his agenda through friendly outlets—whistleblowers at the state-funded MTVA network told The Guardian last week that editors parrot nativist propaganda dictated by the government. Hungary is a European Union country, and so, at least in theory, is tied to minimum standards of democracy and press freedom. And yet EU leaders have too often been timid in holding Orbán to account. They should now—along with the international community at large—rally urgently to save Hungary’s free press. There’s a chance they’re already too late.

Below, more on the crisis gripping Hungarian journalism:

  • Meet the puppetmaster: Before the election, Politico’s Lili Bayer and Joanna Plucinska profiled Orbán media fixer Antal Rogán. (The piece also contains a useful graphic mapping Orbán’s personal ties to major media owners.)
  • “Would you like the guards to escort you out of the room?”: In a short film and accompanying first-person essay, Al Jazeera’s Dan Nolan digs into Orbán’s war on the press, and describes the threat he felt when he questioned it.
  • More-than-creeping authoritarianism: The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project calls for the international community to support Hungarian journalism, denouncing “an attempt to intimidate independent voices [that] mimics similar attacks by other fascist or extreme governments who have created lists of ‘enemies of the state.’”
  • Some international context: You can read Reporters Without Borders’s Hungary fact file here. In 2017, it ranked 71st out of 180 countries worldwide for press freedom.

 

Other notable stories:

  • CJR’s Brendan Fitzgerald reports that local media in Charlottesville, Virginia, failed to contextualize coverage of an online survey to change two Confederacy-linked local park names. “Anyone with internet access—from local residents to Confederate apologists and white supremacists around the country—had a chance to choose what names they desired for [the] parks,” Fitzgerald writes. “With few exceptions, it was impossible to tell who had voted for what name, and where those votes might have come from.”
  • David Pecker’s American Media Inc., the parent company of The National Enquirer, hasn’t experienced a “Trump Bump.” Despite its relentlessly sycophantic coverage of the president, The Wall Street Journal’s Lukas I. Alpert reports, it’s “weighed down by ballooning debt, falling revenue and shrinking newsstand sales.” Relatedly, AMI freed former Playboy model Karen McDougal from a contract that had prevented her from talking openly about her alleged affair with Trump.
  • The latest Time 100 list of influential people is out. Sean Hannity is listed under “leaders,” as are Today show hosts Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb. Freshly minted Pulitzer winners Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow are now also Time “icons” for their work exposing Harvey Weinstein and others. And Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is a “titan,” which likely won’t please our Timeobsessed titan-in-chief.
  • For The Hollywood Reporter, Glynnis MacNicol takes on a fraught topic in journalism: the burgeoning generational gap in newsrooms. “While some dismiss them as the ‘woke’ vanguard of creeping political correctness, the new generation of media leaders, few familiar to anyone older than 40, bring with them differing views on transparency, egalitarianism and social justice—and are far more outspoken about their beliefs,” MacNicol writes.
  • Under-pressure Trump lawyer Michael Cohen withdrew his lawsuit against BuzzFeed, which he says defamed him when it published the infamous Steele dossier on Trump’s alleged Russia ties last year. Cohen stands by the allegation, but is dropping the suit because of last week’s FBI raid on his premises, according to his attorney.
  • Yesterday was a good day all round at BuzzFeed, whose UK investigative team may have solicited one of the all-time great government PR quotes. When it asked British tax authorities if they’d refused to investigate a telecoms firm because it donated money to the governing Conservative party, a senior spokesperson replied, “This is the United Kingdom for God’s sake, not some third world banana republic where the organs of state are in hock to some sort of kleptocracy.” The authorities changed their tune after verifying BuzzFeed’s evidence, calling it “regrettable.”

ICYMI: The lawyer behind the Hannity revelation speaks

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.